Teen in ‘wrestling death’ case charged with violating probation

Lionel Tate, shown attending a Jan. 29 court hearing. Marc Serota / Reuters file

Lionel Tate, the teen who walked out of prison eight months ago after his life sentence for the killing of a 6-year-old playmate was overturned, has been arrested on charges of violating his probation.

A judge said earlier this year that Tate could be sent back to prison if he violated probation.

Officials found Tate, 17, and a friend walking near Tate’s Pembroke Pines home last Friday, sweating and panting as though they had been running, the Broward Sheriff’s Office said.

Tate and his 18-year-old friend told sheriff’s officials they had been “chasing girls,” though no girls were seen in the area, according to a sheriff’s office report.

Tate, who gave a false name, agreed to a search, and deputies found a folding knife with a 4-inch blade in his front pocket and identification cards with his real name.

A probation officer determined Tuesday that Tate was in violation of the terms of his probation and he was arrested at his home. He was being held without bail at the Broward County Jail.

Calls to Tate’s appellate attorney Richard Rosenbaum were not returned late Tuesday.

Tate was 12 when he killed 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick more than five years ago. He served three years of a mandatory life sentence for first-degree murder before the 4th District Court of Appeal overturned his conviction, clearing the way for a plea deal to second-degree murder. The appeals court ruled that his mental competency was not evaluated before trial.

As part of the January deal, Tate was to be under house arrest for a year and probation for 10 years. He also was ordered to complete 1,000 hours of community service and receive regular counseling.

Circuit Judge Joel Lazarus said at that time that he was convinced that Tate understood that one violation of the agreement would send him back to prison.

Tate had originally claimed he accidentally killed the girl while imitating professional wrestling moves he had seen on television. But prosecutors said the girl was brutally beaten to death. Tate’s life sentence stirred national debate over Florida’s treatment of juvenile criminals.

Before he was convicted of first-degree murder, Tate’s mother had turned down a plea deal offered by prosecutors that would have brought him a three-year sentence for a guilty plea to second-degree murder.